In the spotlight: Dr. John Boy

John BoyDr. John Boy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Leiden University working for the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. He coordinates the Digitalization Research Cluster at this Institute and is part of the BOLD Cities Team Science Project on ‘Digital Technologies & the Symbolic Trajectories of Urban Neighbourhoods’.

Could you tell us more about your academic background and your expertise?

I did an undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and then a PhD in Sociology at the City University of New York, during which I focused on urban religion and did field research in different cities on newly founded churches. After my PhD, however, I wanted to move on from being a religion researcher and kind of reinvent myself. This was also in the period that I moved to The Netherlands and had a brief stint as a visiting fellow at Utrecht University’s Centre for the Humanities. I successfully applied for a postdoc position at the University of Amsterdam, where I worked for four years with Prof. dr. Justus Uitermark, who is a sociologist and geographer. We started a research project that we have been working on for the past seven years which is now culminating in a book called ‘On Display: Instagram, The Self, and The City’. The book is about to go into production.

After working at the UvA, I applied for a job in Anthropology at Leiden University, where I currently work. I teach methods, mainly on how to bring together qualitative field methods and computational methods. The combination of these methods is also what we have been doing in the research with Justus, where we combine traditional qualitative techniques, such as interviewing and observations, with analysis of hundreds of thousands Instagram posts and millions of interactions on them, using network analysis and geographic analysis. So, looking back, part of my ‘reinvention’ was getting into that toolkit, combining qualitative with computational methods.

I really praise the Centre for this approach which focusses on making team research projects possible for early-career people such as myself.

How did you get involved with the Centre for BOLD Cities?

I had long been aware of the existence of the Centre for BOLD Cities because of the combination of urban studies and digital methods that the Centre as an interdisciplinary hub works a lot with. And I thought it would be an interesting space with interesting people from across many disciplines to connect with. About three and a half years ago, I got an invitation to participate in the first Team Science design session. We got together in The Hague with a lot of early-career researchers that had prepared one-page memos on research ideas. We were grouped into three or four groups based on broadly shared themes, and on that day we worked on these ideas in several sessions during which we worked out a concrete research project. It was a really cool experience, because we actually had the chance of putting something together with really smart people in the room and actually having the chance of getting that project funded. I really praise the Centre for this approach which focusses on making these kinds of team research projects possible for early-career people such as myself.

This project integrates quite nicely with what I did before, but at the same time took me to new questions, new ways of working, and new collaborators.

Can you tell us about the Team Science project that you are involved in?

That design day resulted in three research projects, one of which was quite close to my initial idea. In that project I work with Jay Lee and Daniel Trottier, neither of whom I knew before. We look at the digital representation of neighborhoods and their material consequences. The original plan was to do comparative research, looking at representation of neighbourhoods on different platforms and doing on-the-ground research. I would be doing the fieldwork, starting in Moerwijk in The Hague, while at the same time Jay would be the lead for the online research and Daniel took the lead reflecting on the research process more generally in terms of research ethics and so on. However, when the pandemic began, we decided that it wasn’t ethical to continue doing the fieldwork, so it ended prematurely. Jay and I have continued focusing on the online analysis using computational methods, and we have been able to present at several international conferences and recently had our first article published on ‘Urban Data as Research Topic, Method and Ethical Concern’ in which Daniel had the lead. Formally, the project is coming to an end this month, but we still have all kinds of things that we are still working on, which is what you want to happen when starting these kinds of projects. And, like I said, this project integrates quite nicely with what I did before, but at the same time took me to new questions, new ways of working, and new collaborators.

What other projects are you currently working on?

The project with Justus Uitermark is my main other thing, but apart from that I also coordinate the Digitalization Research Cluster in my institute - the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology in Leiden. Here we are broadly interested in questions of the digitalization of culture, society and scholarship. Also, while being cut off from fieldwork during the pandemic, I got into software development and developed a research software package called Textnets, which enables researchers to do text analysis and text visualization. So, the pandemic forced me to become a bit inventive, but lead to interesting new research avenues.

Overall, my work spans several disciplines, in terms of the publications and the literature I am dealing with - anthropology, sociology, media studies, geography and urban studies. The kind of questions I am mostly concerned with in my research inherently cut across disciplines, so, by necessity I am not constrained to any one discipline. One of the things that I am also working on with Jay and in our Team Science project is using computational methods to answer questions that are inherently qualitative. Questions about neighbourhood image are very much qualitative, such as the questions that are central to our Team Science project. What is the image of a neighbourhood? And what does this mean? By using the platform data that Jay was able to collect we try to understand how things are at any given time, but also how they have transformed over time.